On a recent busy day this spring, Scott Adams rushed in late to an appointment at his office at the Community America Credit Union, where he works as a financial advisor.
Dressed in his trademark jeans and open-collar shirt, he explained apologetically that he unexpectedly had to hay the horses before he could head off for the office. Adams isnt in rural Nebraska or South Dakota working as a farmer and running a small advisory practice on the side. He actually works full-time in bustling Kansas City, Mo., commuting in from his home in Lawson, about 20 miles northeast, where he lives with his wife and his six kids on a former horse farm that is now a budding goat dairy.
If that doesnt sound like your typical financial advisor, its not. But the real way in which Adams has differentiated himself is with the niche hes carved out. He and his business partner Heath Burch have a very special clientele: families with children who have special needs. Its a market niche he has a special affinity for: three of his own children have special needs.
I started working as a financial advisor right out of school back in 1991, Adams says. I had majored in political science, but there were no jobs when I graduated. A friends dad ran an agency in Kansas City so I started out working there with Connecticut Mutual selling 401(k) plans. I moved into management fairly early, and worked for a series of insurance companies. Then he decided that management wasnt for him and he decided to go into planning.
That was about the time Adams met his future wife Lisa, who had a doctorate in education with a specialization in autism and behavior disorders, and was running a private practice of her own.
They got married and while Adams was working for MetLife, they decided they wanted to adopt a child. When they went to see about an available child, the state agency said, Oh, by the way, there are two siblings. Adams recalls that his wife turned to him and said he would be an ogre if he only would consider taking one of the kids in the family. So we took all three.
As it happened, all three children had special needs of one kind or another. Shortly after the adoptions were arranged, his wife became pregnant with the first of three birth children.
Adams says that as he and his wifewho gave up her practice to apply her skills to the needs of their own broodnegotiated the many issues faced by parents of special needs children. That included finding experts, arranging for appropriate schools, thinking about how to care for their children after they were grown.
At first, they naturally turned to others for help, but as their expertise grew, he found himself becoming a resource for the many other parents out there with children like his own. Then he realized just how big the demand is for this type of help.
Initially I just started doing a monthly workshop, mainly as a way to give back after all the help that had been offered to us, he says. But pretty soon I realized there were an enormous number of families facing these issues and others of their own.
After about six months, he says he was overwhelmed. I begged Heath, who was the smartest guy in our group at MetLifevery detailed and very good on the planning sideto help me. Burch, who was already on the boards of two organizations that work with kids with special needs, including Mid-American Games for the Disabled, was a good fit. That was nine years ago. The two later left MetLife and set up an independent firm called the Special Needs Planning Center. We kicked it off with a $5,000 investment and a prayer, he says, adding, I told my wife to trust me, which fortunately she did.
Adams and Burch decided to focus their advisory business 100% on special needs families. Why that narrow limitation? Its such a special niche, explains Adams. You cant do anything else, really. Its all-encompassing. To do this you have to have a practice that focuses on the families and the kids. Even their office, he says, is unique, with an office and a playroom that features low lighting and a bunch of toys and Wii consoles.
He says, I have the absolutely best life now. Our clients are our friends. Their kids are friends with our kids. We wear jeans to work, because most of our clients and their kids have seen enough doctors wearing dress pants and ties.
He adds, Right now we have over 300 clients and we know everyone. When we get to the point where we dont know all the kids of our clients, well hire more people, but were not there yet.
Meanwhile, the advisory business has kept growing, and not just in the Kansas City area. We have clients from 49 statesall except Hawaii, says Adams.
They have overseas clients too. He mentions getting an inquiry from an Indian family in Minnesota that wanted advice on whether to leave a family inheritance in rupees in an Indian bank, or to bring it to the U.S.
Theres a real hunger out there for what were doing, says Adams, who adds that about 40% of their work is done pro bono.
Of course, theres the financial planning and the investment advice, and thats important, he says, but a lot of it is about informing people about the resources that are out there and how to get themthings like subsidized transportation, help with getting job training and jobs for special needs kids, setting up irrevocable trusts for these kids so that they can be eligible for assistance when theyre emancipated at 18, and also guardianships.
Once children with special needs are emancipated, he explains, as long as they have no more than the federal cut-off level of $2,000 in assets, they become eligible for assistance programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid, subsidized or free transportation, and all the things to help them become independent.
Parents can put resources in a dedicated trust to help such children, but it has to be controlled by someone other than the child in question so they dont end up with assets that would make them ineligible for assistance.
For that kind of specialized legal work, Adams and Burch hired and trained a young lawyer, Leslie Byram, who now has an extremely successful practice 100% with us handling the legal issues of their clients, including dealing with the setting up of such trusts.
Legal services are offered at a steep discount, Adams says. The starting point of the process, he says, is developing a financial plan for any new client family. That takes a good eight to ten hours, says Adams.
We work through all kinds of scenarios with them, and we have a vault that stores all the planning documents we develop, including the continuity-of-care plan for each child. That includes the children who dont have special needs, which we think is important.
He explains, Some kids who have special needs siblings, when theyre older, will say to their parents, You neglected me. Now Im out. When that happens, parents are devastated. I have to say, You know, kids have a right to say no, and they may come back. Dont alienate them. Just be happy you have them.
He recalls a situation from long ago. A mother had lost her husband. She had a son who had just graduated from college and a special needs daughter. While she was in his office, she turned to her son and said, Its your responsibility to take care of your sister.
He immediately saw a look on the sons face, just as he said, Mom, thats your problem. I have to live my life. Adams paused a second. Without disclosing the mothers reaction, he said, Now if shed just told him, Im so proud of you, and left it there, he might have come around later.
In the end, he says, We manage a fair amount of assets, but really it might be fifteen minutes we spend talking about the clients funds, and the rest of the time its about the family and the kids, and thats what makes this so fun. At the same time, you see a lot of hurting parents in our business, and many of them are facing great expenses.
A year ago, Adams and Burch decided to cease being independent and to hitch their wagon to the Community America Credit Union, a local CUSO-affiliated financial institution with some $2 billion in assets.
The credit union had approached us earlier, he says, because they did a survey of their members and found that there were 4,500 of them who had special needs children. They asked us if we could help them.
Eventually, they decided to team up with the credit union and focus exclusively on serving members of the credit union.
Now, the credit union does all the marketing, payroll and the other things we dont like to do, says Adams. That frees Adams and Burch to focus on serving their growing client base.
Initially we took a pretty good haircut going over to the credit union, Adams concedes. Being independent paid us more, but going with CACU made us more secure. And long-term, we think well come out way ahead, with more advisors and more clients. He adds, The credit union is 100% behind us in this.
That long-term prediction didnt take long to pan out. Adams reports that his and Burchs productionthey share all the work, clients and profits equallyrose from $600,446 in 2012 to $764,606 in 2013, a gain of 27%.
Assets under management over the same period grew from $40.3 million in 2012 to $46.1 million in 2013. But Adams says the two men have bigger ideas.
We have plans to expand our practice beyond Kansas City, he says. Before our merger with the credit union, we had branch offices in Dallas and New York. With the credit union, were still looking at what we can and cant do. Id love for other credit unions to do this for their customersbanks too.
He says, Id love to see this thing grow. We see so many families whose plans for their special needs kids are just wrong. And if were seeing that among our credit unions members, God knows how many plans out there are wrong.
He says its encouraging that the American College of Financial Services just established a new certification program for a Chartered Special Needs Consultanta three-course program that is only open to people who already have a CFP, ChFC or CLU certification.
This is far from a competitive threat, Adams says. We have no desire to have a monopoly in this field. The demand is huge. But to do it right, you have to do it full-time, not just with one or two of your clients.
Its easy to see that Scotts intentions in this business are pure, Burch says of his partner. He has both the knowledge base and the personal experience of living with children who have special needs. So he gets both sides of the equation.
And that farm Adams and his wife own? He explains that his wife knew that their childrenespecially the kids with special needswould do well with animals around, so they bought a former horse farm.
Then they got some goats, which it turns out their oldest son has a real affinity for. Now Adams goal is for his son to basically develop and run a goat milk dairy on their farma career that he clearly enjoys and that could work into a profitable venture, with a little help from mom and dad.
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